One of the most crucial pillars underpinning the ‘soft infrastructure’ of any society is the media. The media shapes our view of the world, our interpretation of events, our value systems and to a large extent, our national and even personal identities.
While the media is an indispensable force in creating national cohesion and mobilising populations in the pursuit of national targets – whether this be for economic growth, during emergencies or in times of war – irresponsible or incompetent use of the media can be an equally destructive force. In this issue we report on how poor journalism on the Marikana miners strike in South Africa escalated the problem. Among other examples, the broadcasting of an inflammatory film mocking the Holy Prophet of Islam has already caused several deaths and is threatening to undo the Arab Spring.
Whether for good or ill, there is no questioning the power of the media. The basis of this is that whatever form it takes – print, electronic or sound – the media interacts with us in the mind. It works at a subconscious level. It is the hidden persuader.
In the developed world and increasingly in emerging economies, the status of the media is often higher than that of governments. Powerful leaders go out of their way to woo the media. Big circulation news outlets can, and do, make or break governments.
But in Africa, the development of the media, except in a very few countries, has been sadly neglected. South Africa, and to some extent, Kenya apart, the media is still stuck firmly at a very basic level. The quality of reporting is poor and almost entirely dependent on government information organisations and analysis is virtually totally absent. When columnists comment on various social and political events, they tend to take the far easier route of arousing emotions rather than the more difficult avenue of considered arguments based on facts. The result is that the public is often left bewildered but not enlightened.
Missing the variety of life
The African media also tends to be very narrow in its coverage – usually either taking the government line or disputing it – often with a series of non sequiturs and far-fetched suppositions. It tends to get itself endlessly embroiled in rivalries between politicians or in championing one individual over another. The reporting on business and the economy, crucial if the continent is to make progress, is also well below par.
The narrow focus of the media means that vast aspects of life remain invisible. The role of the media includes aspects of educating the public and bringing to the public consciousness all the wonderful variety of life and modes of living that exist in each society. Life magazine is credited, above all other agencies, of creating the image of the American as a hero. Similarly, by projecting ideal models, many famous papers and magazines have shaped the way people see themselves and strive to attain the ideals so projected. The coverage of the Paralympic Games in London, for example, has completely changed the way the general public now views those with disabilities.
In Africa, we have barely scratched the surface of what the media can do in national and human development. This, I believe, is the result of a lack of capacity in journalists, editors and designers, which in turn is the result of a lack of training. In the media, nine-tenths of the essential work is hidden from view – readers, listeners and viewers only get to see the top 10%. But it is in the hidden 90% that the media’s true strength lies. This is what training and apprenticeship is all about. Here journalists, especially editors, learn the nuts and bolts of the industry, the science and art of communication. Without this training, journalists are reduced to ‘monkey see, monkey do’ imitation without a solid foundation.
The only way to correct this, and unleash the full potential of African journalism, is by establishing competent training institutions in all African regions. It is not good enough to send people off to journalism courses in the UK or the US – relevant journalism is totally sensitive to the degree of economic and social development, culture, traditions, national aims and goals, value systems and so on. Training institutions must be rooted in the societies they wish to serve.
Word has reached me that the Aga Khan Development Network, working with the Aga Khan University, is in the advanced stages of setting up just such an academy in Nairobi. This will be a massive boost to African journalism and once it gets going, will provide the essential training that so many of our very talented journalists sorely need in order to take journalism on the continent to the next, essential, level if our growth and development dreams are to come true.